On September 16, 2020, the US Department of the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) published an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM) seeking comments on regulatory changes to enhance the effectiveness of anti-money laundering compliance programs of regulated financial institutions. As described in FinCEN’s press release, the ANPRM presents an opportunity for financial institutions to provide comments on “a wide range of questions pertaining to potential regulatory amendments under the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA).” While FinCEN has published a number of rules in recent years through formal notice and comment procedures, the rules have been fairly targeted to issues such as customer due diligence. FinCEN has also issued a number of guidance documents, including guidance applying FinCEN’s rules to certain entities in the blockchain industry, but did not accept public comments from industry at the time. Therefore, the publication of the ANPRM presents a relatively rare opportunity for regulated entities to be heard on a range of AML programmatic and compliance issues.

Continue Reading FinCEN Seeks Comments on Effectiveness of AML Programs, Presenting Rare Opportunity for FinTech and Blockchain Companies

As regulators from across the US government continue to grapple with the rapid expansion of financial technology (FinTech) and digital assets, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) has adopted a welcoming position toward such technology and taken three recent steps with the potential to significantly benefit industry. First, the OCC is planning to propose a new national bank charter for payments companies, including those dealing with digital assets, that may allow such companies to obtain a single national license rather than licenses in each state in which they operate. Second, on July 22, 2020, the OCC issued an interpretive letter clarifying that national banks and federal savings associations may provide cryptocurrency custody solutions on behalf of their customers. Third, on June 4, 2020, the OCC issued an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPR) seeking comments on the digital activities of national banks and federal savings associations. All three developments have the potential for significant, positive impact on industry.

Continue Reading OCC Leans Forward on FinTech and Digital Assets

On June 24, the five-year anniversary of New York’s virtual currency licensing regime known as the BitLicense, the New York Department Financial Services (DFS) published new guidance and FAQs related to approval for use of specific currencies and the licensing process, as well as a proposed conditional licensing framework. The measures offer important insight for companies holding or considering applying for a BitLicense and represent the most significant changes and proposed changes since the regulation’s initial issuance in 2015.

Guidance for Adoption or Listing of Virtual Currencies

Under the BitLicense regime, licensees and approved charter holders under the New York Banking Law (collectively, “VC Entities”) are required include virtual currencies (“coins”) they plan to “list” in their initial application to DFS. Historically, in order to list new assets VC Entities were required to go back to DFS to seek approval. Given the proliferation in coins available over the past five years this became a cumbersome and time-consuming system. In order to remedy this issue, in December of 2019, DFS issued proposed guidance to allow licensees to “offer and use new coins in a timely and prudent manner.” After receiving public comments, DFS has now published final guidance creating “two separate frameworks designed to enhance speed and efficiency in a VC Entity’s adoption or listing of coins.” These two frameworks include (1) “a general framework for a VC Entity’s creation of a firm-specific policy for the adoption or listing of a new coin, without DFS’s prior approval, through the process of self-certification” and (2) “a general framework for the process of Greenlisting coins for wider usage.”


Continue Reading New York Publishes New Guidance and Proposed Changes to BitLicense on Five-Year Anniversary

In a series of remarks over the past year, SEC Commissioner Hester Peirce laid the groundwork for a potential SEC safe harbor for developmental token offerings, which could provide a registration exemption for three years to give token networks a sufficient incubation period to achieve “maturity.”

The theory behind the proposed safe harbor is that the current regulatory framework functions as a barrier to launching token networks because offerors fear they may be treated as securities before they have time to mature into decentralized networks. The safe harbor would exempt certain tokens, subject to various conditions, with the aim of creating a regulatory environment that promotes fairness and predictability, while encouraging new offerings and the concomitant competition and innovation that could flow therefrom.


Continue Reading Proposed SEC Safe Harbor Could Provide New Tokens With an Enforcement Grace Period Before Hitting Open Water

On April 29, blockchain took over the Cyberlaw Podcast once again with Alan Cohn, Gary Goldsholle, Will Turner, and guest speaker, Jeff Bandman, covering all things blockchain and cryptocurrency. We dove right into the recent activity from the SEC, namely, the Framework for “Investment Contract” Analysis of Digital Assets and the No-Action Letter issued to TurnKey Jet, Inc. (TurnKey) for a digital token.
Continue Reading Blockchain Takes Over Episode 261 of the Cyberlaw Podcast

On April 3, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) provided important guidance for token issuers. The SEC Division of Corporation Finance issued a No-Action Letter dated April 3 regarding TurnKey Jet, Inc. (the “TurnKey No-Action Letter”) in which the SEC staff confirmed that it would take no action against Turnkey Jet, Inc. (TKJ) for selling tokens without registration. This guidance is most relevant to token issuers who are focused on commercial utility and record-keeping benefits in a centrally controlled network and are willing to minimize or eliminate the profit elements of the token. The TurnKey No-Action Letter, taken together with the Framework for “Investment Contract” Analysis of Digital Assets (“Framework”) issued by the SEC’s Strategic Hub for Innovation and Financial Technology on the same date, offers guidance for structuring the elements of a private, permissioned, centralized blockchain token and network.[1] 
Continue Reading TurnKey Token Gets to Fly: SEC Issues First No-Action Letter for Token Sale

Long awaited guidance from the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on application of the Howey test to digital assets came on April 3 in the form of a Framework for “Investment Contract” Analysis of Digital Assets (“Framework”) and a No-Action Letter regarding TurnKey Jet, Inc. (the “TurnKey No-Action Letter”). These two documents are best understood as part of a trilogy with the June 2018 Hinman speech.

The Framework offers the clearest indication yet of the SEC staff’s thinking on the Howey test, with the TurnKey No-Action Letter and the Hinman speech providing examples of where a digital asset fails to meet a necessary element of the test. For purposes of clarity, it helps to think of the Howey test as having four elements:  (1) an investment of money (2) in a common enterprise (3) with a reasonable expectation of profits (4) derived from the efforts of others.[1]

The first two prongs are essentially throwaways inasmuch as the Framework devotes only three sentences to them in total. SEC staff note that these prongs are “typically satisfied” in evaluating digital assets. On the other hand, the Framework pays significant attention to the third and fourth elements.
Continue Reading SEC Smooths Out Digital Assets Turbulence With Further Guidance

Last week, US District Judge Gonzalo Curiel of the Southern District of California reversed his previous November 2018 order and issued a preliminary injunction against Blockvest LLC (Blockvest) and its founder, Reginald Buddy Ringgold, III, after finding that the Blockvest token (BLV token) met the definition of an investment contract under the Howey test and was therefore a security.  While we are keen to see an example of a digital asset that falls outside the definition of a security either through application of the Howey test or a new test, we are relieved that Judge Curiel did not use the Blockvest case to set forth this precedent.
Continue Reading Judge Holds Blockvest Token a Security Under Howey, and the Wait for a Non-Security Token Continues

The Global Blockchain Business Council (GBBC) recently published its 2019 Annual Report, “Beyond the Hype: Building Blockchains for Real World.” The report provides a comprehensive update on the global regulatory landscape surrounding blockchain technology along with an overview of some of the blockchain solutions being built by GBBC members.

Steptoe authored an overall insights piece,

Last month the Texas Department of Banking published an updated supervisory memorandum discussing the application of the state’s money transmitter law to digital assets.  Nearly every state has a money transmitter statute regulating businesses engaged in the transfer of money within that state, but states vary considerably with respect to how their laws apply to digital assets.  A number of states, including Texas, have taken the position that their money transmitter laws apply only to fiat currency and not cryptocurrency.  Such laws might still apply to a cryptocurrency company, for example one that exchanges cryptocurrency for fiat currency, but don’t govern companies that do not offer fiat-based services.
Continue Reading A Regulatory Fork for Stablecoins: Is New Texas Guidance a Sign of Things to Come?